Family Tree of French Impressionism New York's Metropolitan Museum Looks at the Pioneers Who Led the Way for Modern Painters

By Carol Strickland, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 1, 1994 | Go to article overview

Family Tree of French Impressionism New York's Metropolitan Museum Looks at the Pioneers Who Led the Way for Modern Painters


Carol Strickland, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


`THE grand tradition is lost and the new one is not yet created." The poet and critic Baudelaire described mid-19th-century France this way - just before the period documented in the "Origins of Impressionism" exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nearly 200 paintings by more than 30 artists, including Courbet, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Cezanne, illustrate this transitional stage in French art. In the decade from 1859 to 1870, academic history painting had grown fussy and arid, just before full-blown Impressionism unleashed its torrents of sun and color.

Strangely, for an exhibition of painters associated with light-flooded canvases, the 11 Metropolitan galleries are as dim as a subterranean tunnel. For the most part, the light remains around the corner, in the Met's permanent 19th-century galleries, where mature Impressionist masterpieces are displayed in all their radiance.

This exhibit traces the roots of Impressionism, and substantial dirt clings to those roots. It's not just the earth tones of the Barbizon School and terrestrial realism of Courbet, important precursors of Impressionism. It's the fact that these selections are mediocre examples of work by artists like Corot, Daubigny, Rousseau, and Courbet.

Nevertheless, as a didactic exercise, the show makes its point. The initial galleries of Salon paintings (formulaic scenes glorifying mythological or historical events in excruciatingly perfect detail) convince us that Neoclassicism had reached a dead end. Jean Leon Gme's "King Candaules" (1859) represents everything the nascent movement detested. Gme's standing nude is as static as a Greek statue; his king's profile could have been copied from an urn. Tedious, pompous, and antiquarian, official art was a ripe target for rebels.

The loudest blast on the trumpet of revolution was sounded by an unlikely anarchist, Manet, an aristocrat in a top hat who longed for nothing more than public acceptance. Art historians date the debut of modern painting from 1863, when Manet's "Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe" (a version of which is shown at the Met) attracted squawks of derision at the Salon des Refuses. "Apostle of the ugly and repulsive" was one of the milder epithets thrown at him.

Manet's offense was to reject the dogma that prevailed since the Renaissance. He overturned the concept of painting as a window on three-dimensional reality, simulating through perspective, shading, and invisible brush strokes a world beyond the picture plane. Manet's bold light-dark contrasts announced that a painting is unabashedly a collection of lines, colors, and shapes on canvas, as in "The Fifer" (1866). The boy should be playing a tuba to match the impact of this work. "Manet was a whole new era of painting," Renoir said.

The frank realism of Manet's nudes and their sheer modernity hit the vein that Impressionists would mine. Art would henceforth present a subjective snapshot of current life or nature, without narration or idealization - and without disguising the hand of the maker. …

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